The Role of Leaders in Employee Engagement

Historically, frontline managers and supervisors have been on-the-hook for employee motivation: wielding carrots or  sticks depending on their style and on the organization’s cultural norms.

But now, frontline leaders are responsible for something more complex and unwieldy: employee engagement.

It’s common for engagement surveys to ask staff to assess the leadership skills of their managers. Managers, too, are responsible for “action planning” or taking steps to improve employee engagement between surveys. In some organizations, annual bonuses to leaders depend on the outcome of the engagement survey.

But how instrumental are managers to the process of employee engagement? Surprisingly, the research on this question is sparse.

A lit review on the topic concluded that the link between leadership and engagement had not been investigated much (Carasco-Saul, Kim & Kim, 2015) .

A study on the link between engagement and leadership in the Job Demands Resource model of engagement cites just 12 previous examples—all primarily focused on measuring the impact of transformational leadership on engagement (Schaufeli, 2015).

The findings of the Schaufeli study on leadership in the JD-R model  warrant our attention.

In the conventional presentation of the JD-R, leadership is not called out, rather it’s understood to be one of many possible job resources that influence engagement. Schaufeli isolates leadership as a variable and find that the the connection between leader behaviors and engagement is not what the researcher, or many of us, would have predicted.

The hypothesis under scrutiny proposes that managers impact engagement directly by satisfying the psychological needs of their employees—specifically for relatedness, competence, and belonging.

However, the research finds that while the impact of leadership on outcomes (employee commitment and performance behavior) is significant the impact of leadership on engagement is indirect and dependent on the ability of the leader to make the necessary job resources available to the team.

As the author explains: “Instead of having direct effects on burnout and work engagement, it seems that the effect of engaging leadership is exclusively indirect. It creates a more favorable job environment, which, in its turn, reduces burnout and fosters work engagement and work outcomes.”

This is just one study, and, from a practitioner’s perspective, one might ask well so what’s new here? Do these findings in any way affect how we think or practice engagement in real life?

Perhaps not, but I think the findings of this study raise a few interesting questions worth considering. I’ve been thinking about the following, this week:

1. Are leaders spending too much time on psychological job resources, e.g. trust and team building, and not enough time marshaling job resources that are lower down on Maslow’s pyramid—such equipment that works, supportive work schedules, and pay?

2. How do frontline leaders perceive their role in employee engagement and what can organizations do better to support them in being effective?

3. What are the job resources that support high engagement of frontline leaders? After all, it’s unlikely that disengaged managers can lead engaged teams.

As always, I welcome your comments on this or anything else related to how we flourish at work.

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